Happy Easter! Expect the Unexpected

Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not yet understood. Henry Miller

My transition from sleep to wakefulness comes as a result of a solid internal clock –courtesy of age – and the ambient sounds of the world around me – birds, the Latino radio station from the man delivering newspapers,  the family stirring. On Easter morning the hotel alarm buzzes me awake at five in order for my husband and myself to attend a sunrise service.

The location of the service is St. Andrew’s by the Sea in Hyannis.   The staff at the motel can’t recall where it is located.  It’s not in the telephone book and online references are fuzzy.  Through the Massachusetts diocese home site we get a street, but no no parish profile or web site. Programming this spare information into the GPS we set out before sunrise on a literal quest for the sole Episcopal church in this town.

Navigating a warren of roads that pass darkened summer homes closed in off-season, we happen upon a police officer who escorts us, headlights on, past the skeletons of privet hedge to the dead-end street where St. Andrew’s stands high on a bluff next to a local beach and yacht club.

We don’t know what to take in first : the location of a church that must have a dramatic view of the Atlantic once the sun is up or the fact that there is barely a place to park.  The road dead ends at a local private club with a capacious parking lot but it is barricaded in off-season. And most likely barricaded in-season to the hoi polloi.

St. Andrew’s is closed as well. At least the doors to the building are closed.  There is a gathering of 60 or so eager to witness and reconstruct in our own humble way the event that shattered the world.  Easter fest 2010!  We wait on a small patch of ground next to the stone building.

The service begins with a lone trumpet leading the hymns.  Everyone sings along.  The invocation and prayers are direct – nothing precious or overly intellectual.  As I say the words out loud in community I feel changed, lighter inside, a greater sense of understanding which quickens commitment.  It is terribly cold on this bluff by the Atlantic and I am not dressed for it.  My husband takes off his jacket, wraps me in it, and holds me firm and strong.  We had argued on the way here. In his loving, intimate action, there is proof of resurrection and healing. I think – no I know – this one of the best Easters ever.

The homily is short and one of the best ones I’ve heard. Here’s what I remember: Expect the unexpected, particularly when the unexpected exposes Christ in others.

The prayer that follows the homily begins like this:
God of such amazing surprise, put a catch in my breath today. Put wings on my heart.

This Holy Week, on the dune and ocean landscape of New England, the site of new buds on thorny bushes has caught my eye. There are rows of these dotted about the small patch of ground next to the closed Episcopal church.  

The church building is still dark as the sun rises over the cold Atlantic. The Church turns to see the morning fog begin its dispersal, chatting about where to go for  a warm breakfast and cup of coffee. Continuing the fellowship.

This worship was hosted by a confederation of Baptist churches in surrounding towns.  The participating pastors will be going off to their respective churches for indoor Easter services. One announces that there will be six baptisms that morning.

In the light, it becomes clear why no one knew where the church was: those who attend it want it for themselves. It is a seasonal church, intended for the people with summer homes. Most likely it is a summer cure for a priest who gets a small stipend, a place near the beach, an honorary membership at the yacht-beach-tennis-dinner club, and regular invitations to cocktail parties.

Peeking through the front window we can see that it is well-appointed: crisp volumes Lift Every Voice and Sing side by side with the 1982 Hymnal.  Although it is possible the volumes look crisp because they are held for a few minutes each week, 4 months out of the year, by people who are used to taking care of nice things.

The week before Easter the House of Bishops met at Camp Allen in Texas. Part of their time together included two days spent on the Emergent Church.  From what I’ve heard there was an amusing awkward tone to all this as the Emergent Church is anti-hierarchical as well as anti-institutional.  The bishops listened to presentations and were given a book to take home so they could read about about the Emergent Church.  The book has two introductions: one by Katharine Jefferts-Schori and the other by Rowan Williams.  The other chapters are written by people who, while insightful about the enormous transition going on in Spirit and Faith as well as the dissolution of the institutional-hierarchical church,  rely on its financial resources for their livelihood.

The bishops were also given two CDs with examples of Emergent Church music.  The music, skillfully executed and even occasionally sincere, was intended for soloists and bands.  Not a single song that could be sung by a congregation on either recording.

The readers of this blog are too wise for me to have to explain the irony of all this.  But two caveats for any bishops or canons or program people trying to understand and evolve:  First, buying the program is not the program.  If you need this verified, ask the hard-working and resourceful director of your formation program.

Second, there is an army of clergy in your diocese deeply invested in the status quo of their seminary training and the reality of parish politics.  The House of Bishops may meet as an International Entity but church is local.

In a culturally synchronous moment, Holy Week was the week that Priest Barbie became a fetishistic fad among certain Episcopalians.  The Facebook page garnered thousands of fans.  Priest Barbie showed up with a bitchin’ liturgical wardrobe, including a miniature sacristy at her imaginary Malibu parish.  People thought a plastic priest with an anatomically impossible figure, the most hated and tortured toy in recent memory, was a hoot, a role model, and a signal of the The Episcopal Church’s “coolness”.

Can’t we stop pretending?

It is a natural human inclination to stave off the difficult but necessary aspects of transition with totemic figures, programs, and magic thinking. During Easter we not only honor Jesus, but the lifetime journey of mindfully, reverently nurturing the Christ in ourselves and others. Miracles not magic thinking. The truth – the Word – is so very near us.  It’s in night blossoms, and buds in thorns, the narratives of our prophets, matriarchs, and patriarchs, our relationships. There are portals of sacred transformation among us.

The Emergent Church has been around for two plus millennia. It is not “out there”.  Unless the leadership of The Episcopal Church considers a confederation of Baptist ministers leading the faithful to worship at dawn “out there”.

Holy Saturday 2010

I not only gave up Lent for Lent this year, I also gave up blogging.  There are times when the impulse to come to conclusions prevents living mindfully in God’s time.  Strict adherence to arbitrary calendars, deadlines, and relentless standards also prevents us from living mindfully and compassionately.

Yet another good reason not to attend church for Lent.  Jesus goes out on the desert to discern his life’s mission, and we’re asked to sit like cattle while the church staff tells us what this is all about.

We are poor little sheep who have lost our way…baa, baa, baa.

A while back I was at a staff meeting planning the parish events for the year.  The organist-choir director looked at the calendar sighing dramatically.  “There is absolutely no place for us to have a choir fundraiser for our trip to England!”

I pointed out a nice empty weekend in March – not a schedule conflict in sight.

“But that falls on the second weekend in Lent!”

“And the problem is….?”

“We want to have a festive atmosphere in order to raise money!”  There was scorn in his voice; you could hear the bumper “Dummy!” in his inflection.

I explained to him that some very great thinkers in the church had experimented with not observing Lent.  Holy Week, of course, but Lent was made from whole cloth. Just as New Year’s Eve is party night for amateurs, living a disciplined prayerful life for exactly 40 days seems to miss the point.  Moreover, hadn’t we all experienced people who gamed the system?  Those who conflate sacrifice with vanity or self congratulation, or those who are eager to drop their discipline on Sundays when it’s “technically” a mini-Easter? (40 days minus Sundays = piety.)

The implication that I was a dummy gave way to a look from the clergy and organist as if I was suggesting the sacrifice of goats to Baal on the altar.  The rector said that no weddings or baptisms would ever take place in “his” church during Lent.

Silly me! I thought that the church belonged to the Body of Christ, but it really belongs to the clergy collecting a salary from the Body of Christ.

And for those of us with birthdays that occur during Lent, I suppose this priest would have us wear hair shirts as we sup on soup instead of ice cream cake. Darn, if only I had been born during the season of Pentecost, I could enjoy my birthday in a festive atmosphere.

This is the week that we remember the most important part of Jesus’ story.  Even though we are intimately familiar with it, each day, each story has its own vibration. If we tune in, we will hear a distinctly unique pitch sounding from the past, present, future, this world, and the other world all at once.

The vibration on Holy Saturday sounds the story of the women waiting to honor in death their beloved friend and rabbi.  They ready themselves to prepare not only his body, but for the reality of transition that is sure to come.

Too bad so many miss this part of the story.  The church staff is exhausted from coordinating “correct” Palm Sunday processions, Tenebrae services, forcing people into ritualized intimacy with Maundy Thursday liturgies, (it took me years to really hear that foot washing in this artificial situation is indeed gross for the average citizen!), getting everyone on board for the ecumenical Good Friday service, hiring the brass ensemble to replicate the shadow of a joyous Easter morning…and I forgot to include the Great (or typically Not-So-Great) Vigil of Easter.

An elder in a church where I used to sing, called this the “hot dog cooker” service. Maybe she was on to something.

Exactly how the institutional church remembers this week is the topic of another post. And another, and yet another. The liturgical year is a teaching opportunity about the life of Jesus, not what we worship instead.

In the northeast United States – and possibly other parts of the country – no matter how honest and holy and well-intentioned the remembrances of Holy Week are, attendance is low. It is spring break in the public schools: AKA “Mud Week” because it’s like trying to get wheel traction in thick mud.

I can’t count the times I’ve worked with teams planning and executing great Easter Eve Walks, powerful Palm Sunday experiences, sincere Maundy Thursday meals, celebratory Easter mornings, and a fraction of the parish population has shown up. Or the ecumenical youth group has forgotten what they were supposed to do at the sunrise beach service because they took a red-eye back from a warm, hedonistic locale and are fried.

What are leaders supposed to do about this?  Condemn those on vacation?

Take a tip from the early Christian strategists and work with the culture.  Jesus, like the Queen of England, has two birthdays – a real one and one the public celebrates in December.

Palm Sunday

Yes, the liturgical year is a helpful way to frame time.  But when the consumer culture co-opts the Easter egg hunt so it is about competition, over-buying plastic eggs and other doo-dads from Oriental Trading, it’s time for the church to stand for something.  Putting on a lonesome high-church chant fest for 20 people on Holy Saturday with the hot dog cooker and singing the Exultet is fine.  But the next weekend – Easter 1 – when all the kids, families, DINCs, retirees, singles, and young couples return from a much-deserved break, tell the story again. Save breakfast on the beach reading for the summer by making breakfast on the beach!

Make it live for yourself and it will live for those around you.  An interesting side effect of  rescheduling is that we don’t have to live with the cognitive dissonance of pretending we don’t know about the resurrection.  What an interesting contemplation. We already hold the sad knowledge of Good Friday when we re-enact the Last Supper. What if we also held in our hearts the knowledge of the Resurrection?

There is a tale that the founder of Hasidic Judaism, when faced with a problem, would go to a sacred place in the woods, ritualistically light a fire, and say a particular prayer.  The rabbi would then gain insight. His successor knew the place in the wood and the prayer, but did not know how to light the fire.  He also, would come to a new understanding. With each succeeding generation, a bit of the ritual would be lost.  When Rabbi Israel of Rishin was confronted with a problem, he stayed at home. “The fire we can no longer light, the prayer we no longer know, nor do we remember the place. All we can do is tell the tale. And that is sufficient.”

Let us go on telling the tale, and to paraphrase St. Francis, sometimes use words.